Historic Preservation Guide

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The Evolution of Building Preservation

A building is the single largest consumer product in our culture. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” is a mantra that applies as fully to buildings as to other consumer products.
The builders of structures in the 1800s and early 1900s were owner/occupiers who generally chose an interesting façade, a functional space, sturdy materials, and master craftsmen to create an edifice in which quality and durability prevailed. The goal was a building that would last hundreds of years. In comparison, major structures erected during the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first were constructed by commercial builders, most of whom used the least expensive materials and cared about the life of the building only from the close of construction to the date of securing the first buyer. As grandfathers are known to reminisce, “They don’t build ‘em like they used to.”

In 1996, Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act with the aim of combatting the wrecking ball and retaining historically significant buildings as part of our rich cultural heritage. In turn, most of the states, including Massachusetts, enacted tax breaks to encourage the reuse of existing buildings.

Until recently, most preservation focused on private historical homes that continued to be private homes or on historical mansions that were turned into museums. In the last few years, however, old schools, libraries, and civic buildings have been renovated to preserve their shells while providing greener interiors in which to continue the building’s original function. But preserving a building does not necessarily mean retaining its originally intended use. Businesses have begun converting old industrial and municipal buildings into spaces for offices, shops, and living spaces—sometimes with a mixture of all three in the same building. These reincarnated historical spaces are making a difference in the life of the community by bolstering the economy and establishing a pride of place.


The sustainability movement was initially viewed by the construction industry as the need to select environmentally appropriate materials for new construction and to recycle the salvageable materials from tear-downs. The prevailing theory was that it was too expensive to retrofit old buildings to meet modern codes, so they should be replaced. What has helped to change this view is recognition of the fact that the true cost of new materials for construction must include the energy costs of extracting, processing, shipping, and incorporating the materials into the building.

In fact, it requires 30 to 50[1] times as much energy to incorporate materials into a new building as the average annual energy use of the building during occupancy. In addition, the demolition of a building and disposal of the debris carry their own energy costs. Viewed in this manner, the immediate energy savings in rehabilitating an old building for new or continuing use is of major significance in our nation’s battle to save energy, combat global warming, and conserve natural resources.

Local Jobs

In new construction, the split between labor and materials is about 50/50. In rehabilitating old buildings, the split is roughly 70/30, which is noteworthy in these times of exporting jobs overseas. Preserving historical buildings creates the opportunity for local investments that produce local jobs. It also creates a cadre of skilled workmen who learn the ways of the old craftsmen who constructed the building and find job satisfaction in preserving their community’s history.

Community Pride

A community is defined not only by its location on the map but also by its history. An old building that carries on through the centuries as a continuously reinvented space to serve the changing needs of the community also carries the community’s history. The people who created and maintained the building, every ancestor who experienced it, every function held in it, everything the building has contained, continues to live on in the structure and space of that building and therefore in the community—a characteristic that has been called the soul of the building. It creates the kind of heritage that makes a community a home town, and a town that shows this pride of place can become a tourist destination as well.

“Greening” Historical Buildings

The non-profit U. S. Green Building Council (USGBC) was established in 1993 to spur on sustainable construction. As part of that effort, in 2000 the USGBC promulgated a certification system known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). It provides third-party verification that a building, complex or community was designed and built using strategies to improve performance in energy savings, water efficiency, reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, improved indoor environmental quality, stewardship of resources, and sensitivity to their impacts. Until recently, LEED certification applied to new buildings, but now there are historical buildings that have attained LEED certification. Following are the highlights of one of them.

From Power Plant to Charter School

In 1905 in Chicago, Illinois, Sears, Roebuck and Co. built the coal-burning Homan Square Power House to provide electricity and heat for the company’s massive headquarters. The exterior of the building was typical of power plants of that day: handsome, reddish-brown brick construction with a 185-foot-tall brick smokestack. By the late 1990s, the abandoned building presented a face of broken and boarded up windows, and the interior offered a refuge for birds and rats.

Fortunately, the Homan Arthington Foundation rescued the derelict building and turned it into a charter school known as the Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center. The architects converted the three-story turbine room into an impressive great hall (a venue for the school cafeteria, school assemblies, exercise activities, and community events) and refashioned the boiler room into classrooms and meeting rooms. The building was completed in 2009.

Traces of the building’s history remain on the exterior of the building and in the renovated spaces. Terra cotta decorations and the ghostly delineations of old lean-to buildings remain on the exterior brick. Interior historical features have been retained. Some classroom windows look out on the restored brick smokestack. A coal-ash conveyor is displayed behind glass, and the great hall exhibits a large blue chilling machine and a 40-ton gantry crane. These elements help to create a building that is an educational lesson in itself.
In keeping with environmental sustainability, the conversion of the Sears power house included the replacement of old windows with double-glazed, energy-efficient panes that retained the arched shapes of the historical windows. All of the electrical, heating, and ventilating systems are state-of-the-art, and geothermal wells have also been provided. These and other outstanding features of this project earned it a LEED Gold certification.